Schools love to compete.
Each fall, mercenary students smack helmets, grappling and chasing for gridiron glory. Every spring, there is a ribbon-cutting for the next iconic monument that celebrates deconstructive discord or sustainable solidarity. Schools poach pupils with scholarships and raid rival faculties with esteemed titles and bottomless budgets. Let’s not forget those glitchy gauges known as rankings, which cement branding and benchmarking alike.
Come spring, the graduation speaker is the academic answer to the celebrity endorsement. Think of it as pumping up the pomp and circulating the circumstance. It is a means for schools to brandish their influence by trotting out an exceptional alum to assert the usual tropes: take risks, follow passions, and never give up — pretty much the same message as every 80s movie.
HILLARY CLINTON AND MARK ZUCKERBERG HEADLINE GRADUATION SPEAKERS OVERALL
While most business schools hold ceremonies exclusively for MBAs, graduates can also march with the rest of their graduate and undergraduate peers. In this year’s graduation circuit, students will find homecomings and inspiration alike. Hillary Clinton, for one, is returning to her Wellesley roots nearly a half century after serving as the school’s first student speaker. She isn’t the only politico playing to the crowds. Bernie Sanders will rock the mike at Brooklyn College, while Mike Pence will bring his trademark matter-of-factness to Notre Dame. Apparently, Joe Biden enjoys plenty of free time, speaking at both Cornell University and Colby College. Sheryl Sandberg, Tim Cook, Howard Schultz, and Oprah Winfrey have been booked at Virginia Tech, MIT, Arizona State, and Smith College respectively.
Looking for the big story? How about Mark Zuckerberg’s pilgrimage to Cambridge to collect his honorary Harvard degree? Maybe they’ll bring in Jesse Eisenberg to hand it to him? Of course, it wouldn’t be graduation season without entertainers like Will Ferrell (USC), Arnold Schwarzenegger (University of Houston), and Helen Mirren (Tulane) making the rounds. Even the Dalai Lama gets into the act, rolling into U.C.-San Diego in June.
How do business schools fare in 2017? In all honesty, you could call it a down year for star power in MBA-specific ceremonies. Last year’s MBA convocation crop, for example, boasted GE CEO Jeff Immelt (NYU Stern), Ford CEO Mark Fields (Michigan Ross), General Motors CEO Mary Barra (Stanford), and Bridgespan Co-Founder Tom Tierney (Harvard). This year, the biggest household name might be Penny Pritzker, a former U.S. Secretary of Commerce during the Obama administration. In 2017, she returns to her alma mater, the Stanford Graduate School of Business, to address the next wave of entrepreneurs, financiers, and consultants.
By now, Pritzker should have her speech down pat, after giving graduation keynotes at Harper College in 2014 and Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in 2016. What should Stanford MBAs expect? At Harper College, Pritzker beseeched her audience to “Trust your crazy ideas and take the risk” (Cue 80s workout montage). Last year, her key theme touched on the lasting value of social capital. “As you begin your careers,” she counseled “you need to start building your reputation from day one. There is no honeymoon period. I am not just referring to obeying the law, but to the way you treat people and how you behave. If you conduct yourself with integrity, I promise you: your reputation will serve as the bedrock on which you build your career, and you will have control of your narrative.”
DELOITTE AND GOLDMAN SACHS MAKE THEIR PRESENCE KNOWN
In some cases, this year’s speakers appear to be making strategic impressions. In other words, speeches feel almost like last ditch pitches to persuade undecided MBAs or impressionable first years to join up. Take Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, which welcomes Cathy Engelbert, Chief Executive Officer of Deloitte LLP, to campus on May 13th. For six consecutive years, Deloitte has acted as the big consumer of Fuqua talent, snapping up 283 graduates over that time period. You can bet it was an easy sell to bring Engelbert to Durham. Speeches can also serve as a thank you. Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business is traditionally a reservoir of MBA talent for Deloitte Consulting. How critical is Kelley to the Deloitte pipeline? The consulting arm’s Chairman and CEO, Janet Foutty, is a 1991 Kelley MBA. Sure enough, she is the keynote speaker for the 2017 MBA graduation ceremony on May 5th.
Goldman Sachs is also well-represented, with keynote speakers at both Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business hailing from the Golden Squid. Coincidence, maybe…but serendipity, no doubt. In Evanston, graduates will be treated to Edith Cooper, a 1986 Kellogg MBA who serves as the Global Head of Human Capital Management. Translation: she is the person you need to impress to move up at the 35,000 employee behemoth. While Kellogg traditionally places 5-7 MBAs at Gold Sachs each year, Cooper believes the two institutions are very closely aligned, making Kellogg MBAs all the more valuable to the banking giant. “We seek collaboration, entrepreneurialism, creativity and diversity — qualities that are fundamental to Kellogg’s mission, as well,” she explained in a recent interview with Kellogg.
Booth receives similar love from Goldman Sachs, with the school averaging 7.7 hires per year since 2010. In June, graduates will hear from Linnea Conrad Roberts, a 1990 Booth MBA and newly-retired managing director at Goldman Sachs, whose claim to fame was helping to take Zipcar public. Like many MBAs, Conrad Roberts is making her own transition, branching out into investment and philanthropy. In particular, she hopes to mentor women, especially those returning to the workforce. You can expect her to touch on similar themes in her speech. “Women are incredibly effective in the workforce,” she explains in a 2016 interview with Booth. “It’s ironic that corporations complain about not finding talented women when there are so many who want to come back to work. We just need to create a bridge.”
Of course, you can expect several MBA speakers to bring the house down this spring. Our pick: brainy NASDAQ CEO Adena Friedman, a 1993 Owen MBA who’ll be returning to her alma mater on May 12th. The ever-upbeat Sallie Krawcheck, a Wall Street pioneer and gender warrior, makes her way down tobacco road to address the 2017 Class at UNC’s Kenan Flagler Business School. The University of California-Berkeley landed Joseph Jimenez, CEO of Novartis and proud ‘84 Haas MBA. Most impressive, Wharton has brought back Yuri Milner, who amassed a $3 billion dollar net worth after making key early investments in Facebook, Airbnb, Snapchat, Alibaba, Twitter, and Groupon foresight that has ranked him among the top business leaders in lists ranging from Fortune to Time.
Who is speaking at your school? Where can you go for information on hotels, parking, and schedules for these ceremonies? Check out our commencement list on the next pages for everything you need to watch or join these events.
Graduation Date: April 28, 2017
Graduation Speaker: Chip Conley, Strategic Advisor for Hospitality & Leadership, Airbnb
Graduation Information: Ross Commencement 2017
Comments or questions about this article? Email us.